Will Trump’s Plan B To Use Census For An Anti-Immigrant Power Grab Even Work?

WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a Rose Garden statement on the census July 11, 2019 at the White House in Washington, DC. President Trump, who had previously pushed to add a citi... WASHINGTON, DC - JULY 11: U.S. President Donald Trump listens during a Rose Garden statement on the census July 11, 2019 at the White House in Washington, DC. President Trump, who had previously pushed to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, announced that he would direct the Commerce Department to collect that data in other ways. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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August 14, 2019 11:15 am
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The Census Bureau says it can obtain the data President Trump will need to facilitate a game-changing, GOP-boosting redistricting overhaul. The outside experts who work with redistricting data aren’t so sure.

Having failed in his attempt to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, Trump resorted to what amounts to a backup plan: an executive order commanding the Census Bureau to use existing government records to come up with citizenship data.

The overhaul is part of a broad effort to let states exclude noncitizens in how they draw legislative maps, which would increase representation for Republican-leaning whites, while diminishing the political power of diverse, immigrant-friendly communities.

The Census Bureau told Congress recently that it would be producing the kinds of citizenship data that would let red states exclude noncitizens from consideration in redistricting. However, redistricting experts and outside census wonks TPM spoke to in the last few weeks raised several concerns about the accuracy of the citizenship data the Census Bureau will be producing.

Doubts about the accuracy and validity of the census data could open lines of legal attack on redistricting efforts that rely on the data, foreshadowing a new wave of redistricting challenges in 2021.

“It is, I think, a very big question and whether or not this thing could really be pulled off,” Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services Inc. told TPM.

In written answers submitted to Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) that were shared with TPM Tuesday, the Census Bureau signaled it was moving full steam ahead with the effort.

In the answers, the Census Bureau confirmed that it was producing “block level” data on “citizen voting age population.”

“Block level” refers to the geographical units that make up the basis of the decennial census. It’s the level of granularity provided in the data that states use for redistricting every 10 years. “Citizen voting age population” or “CVAP” is the type of data that’s been sought by conservative advocates, who have pushed for the redistricting overhaul that would counteract the demographic changes that are currently benefiting Democrats.

While the written submissions stop short of saying that the CVAP data would be on the redistricting file given to states in 2021, the Census Bureau essentially confirmed that the data is being collected in the form that would allow it to do so.

Jeff Wice, a census and redistricting expert at the University of Buffalo School of Law, told TPM in an email that he was “doubtful” that the Census Bureau will be able to “accurately” produce the data using the existing government records.

“There are bound to be mistakes and inaccuracies,” Wice said. “Any state using this kind of data will end up in a court challenge.”

Michael Li, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, described the Census Bureau’s current efforts as “building the plane as you’re trying to take off.”

Outside experts who spoke to TPM had numerous concerns about the reliability of the data the Census Bureau would be compiling and raised doubts that the Census Bureau would actually be able to pull this project off.

Some of the records the Census Bureau will be relying on, like Social Security Administration records, don’t include street addresses, making it difficult to match them to the individual census blocks that make up the skeleton of the decennial enumeration. There is also uncertainty about how current the various records are and the lack of consistency — both in terms of the time periods measured and the definitions of the data themselves — across the different agencies that the Census Bureau will have to draw from.

“[The existing records approach] works pretty well on the big level, but trying to figure out exactly where people fall at the block level is much, much harder,” Li said.

The Census Bureau did not respond to an inquiry from TPM highlighting these concerns.

Still, several experts noted that the Census Bureau still has plenty of time to address these issues, as it won’t start supplying states with the redistricting data until February 2021. Brace estimated that the Census Bureau had about a year to resolve these challenges.

Terri Ann Lowenthal, a consultant who is well-regarded expert on the census, said that the Census Bureau had never before been asked to produce citizenship data on a block level and that the current task before it was unprecedented.

“The Census Bureau is still in the early stages of obtaining and evaluating a range of federal records [and] administrative data sets that contain information on citizenship and possibly the status of noncitizens,”  Lowenthal said. “So I think it is probably is too early to know.”

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